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10 Tips for Using Color Theory in Landscape Photography

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There are many things that lead to great landscape photography. Understanding and using color theory is one of them.

Here are 10 tips for using color theory to give your landscapes a visual boost.

A beautiful landscape made up of a green color scheme - color theory for landscape photography
A beautiful landscape made up of a green color scheme. Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

1. Get Into Color Theory

Color in photography plays an important role. It determines how we perceive an image. By analysing colours and their relationships with one another, colour theory seeks to define this.

Colors have different psychological associations (we’ll have a look at those later). Different combinations of color determine how a photograph is comprehended.

Familiarising yourself with color theory allows you to predict and identify successful/unsuccessful applications of color. You’ll get better at creating images with emotional depth and visual interest.

 A harmonious landscape shot of grass under a cloudy sky - color theory for landscape photography
The harmonious combination of blue and green cultivates a relaxed atmosphere. Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

2. Understand Color Theory and the Landscape

Since the invention of color photography, color has been a driving force behind the reading of a photograph. Color theory gives photographers the tools to assess colors in terms of their visual relationship to each other.

In landscape photography, subject matter can range from the monochromatic to scenes that run the full gamut of the visible spectrum.

Color theory allows landscape photographers to harness the make-up of a landscape. You’ll figure out what harmonises or disrupts an image long before you take the image. This will save you time and help you create better images.

A striking image of desert sand under a blue sky - color theory for landscape photography
The oranges and blues in this image create a striking contrast. Photo by Pavel Barysevich on Unsplash

3. Check out the Color Wheel

So what are color relationships? Enter, the color wheel.

It dates  back to the 18th century and it’s still used by visual artists today. The traditional color wheel is a simple visualisation of colors and their interconnection with each other.

Within the color wheel, the primary colors (red, yellow, blue), secondary colors (purple, orange and green) and tertiary colors (vermilion, amber, chartreuse, teal, violet and magenta) all come together in a readable format.

All creative applications of color exist within the color wheel. This allows photographers to refer back to the tool as a handy guide. Here is a version below:

the color wheel
The color wheel from Wikimedia Commons

Familiarise yourself with the color wheel. You’ll understand how colors interact when placed close to each other.

This is the bedrock of color theory. It’s the visual basis on which effective color relationships are founded.

4. Get to Know Complementary Colors

Complementary colors lie opposite each other on the color wheel. They create the strongest contrast possible when used in combination with each other.

They cause a visual vibration when near each other and make an image pop.

Looking at the color wheel below we can see that colors like red and green or blue and orange are opposite each other. These are common combinations of complementary colors.

Complementary colors orange and teal

Incorporating complementary colors into landscape photography creates eye-catching contrast. It presents a unique insight into the duality of an environment.

A tumultuous landscape of complementary oranges and blues - color theory for landscape photography
A tumultuous landscape of complementary oranges and blues. Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

5. Say hi to Split Complementary Colors

These are a variation of the complementary color scheme. Split complementary colors pair a base color with the two colors adjacent to its complementary color.

A split complementary color scheme
A split complementary color scheme

Vermilion, (whose complementary color on the color wheel is teal) is grouped with green and blue instead.

A split complementary color scheme produces colors with adequate contrast. But they have greater subtlety than complementary colors.

A rugged landscape featuring split complementary details - color theory for landscape photography
A rugged landscape featuring split complementary details. Photo by Ben Carless on Unsplash

6. Experiment With Analogous Colors

Analogous colors neighbour each other on the color wheel. Analogous schemes like teal, blue and violet flow into one another. They create harmony in an image.

In a landscape photo, you can use analogous groupings like autumnal reds, vermilion, and oranges or marine greens, teals, and blues. These create depth and visual resonance.

An analogous color scheme
An analogous color scheme
A lush landscape under a cloudy sky - color theory for landscape
Analogous green shades make up this lush landscape. Photo by Claudio Testa on Unsplash

7. Try Triad Colors

Triad colors are any three colors that are spaced three colors apart on the color wheel. A selection of red, yellow and blue or orange, purple and green are triad groupings of color.

The triad color scheme
The triad color scheme

In landscape photography, triad colors generate harmonious yet eye-catching color schemes.

They enhance the dynamic relationship between colors in the natural environment.

A mountainous landscape under a colorful sunset sky - color theory for landscape
A triad colour scheme of red, yellow and blue. Photo by Simon Matzinger on Unsplash

8. Fire up With Warm Colors

Color theory describes the relationships between individual colors. And it groups them by their overall visual atmosphere.

Like the color wheel, the concept of warm and cool colors has had significant influence on visual art since at least the late 18th century.

Warm colors are understood to be hues from red through yellow. These include the oft-forgotten shades of brown which are prominent in landscape photography.

Associated with sunlight and heat, warm colors appear closer to the viewer, stimulating a sense of immediacy and visual activity.

In landscape photography, warm light is often best encountered during golden hour. This is a window of daylight that renders the landscape in immersive, warm tones.

A landscape of predominantly warm colors - color theory for landscape
A landscape of predominantly warm colors. Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

9. Chill out With Cool Colors

Like warm colors, cool colors have properties and associations linked to their presence in the natural landscape. Cool colors tend to diminish into the background of an image. This makes the surrounding space appear larger.

Cool colors such as blue, green, grey and violet evoke a sense of calm and relaxation. Blue hour, which occurs before sunrise in the morning and after sunset in the evening, lends an ethereal blue tone to the surrounding landscape.

Our associations with cold colors link cool-colored landscape photography with a sense of peace, quiet and reflection.

A dramatic landscape made up of cool tones - color theory for landscape photography
A dramatic landscape made up of cool tones. Photo by Alex Talmon on Unsplash

10. Figure out Feelings

Color and emotion are inextricably linked. Color theory studies the relationships between colors. It can also examine how our behaviour is shaped by the 7 million shades discernible to the human eye.

In photography, the viewer relies on color as a visual cue to convey the emotional climate of the photograph. You can use this to create interest and emotional weight in your landscape images. Colors can also help hint at the weather or season your photo was taken in.

Here are some popular landscape colors and the emotions they evoke.

Blue

A calming color, blue illustrates the expanse of a landscape. It inspires awe and generates visual space.

Aerial landscape photo of the sea coming into a beach - using color theory in landscape photos
Blue is a calming yet distinctive hue in landscape photography. Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Grey

Embodying rain, water, fog, clouds and sky, grey is a versatile color. It evokes a sense of cold and solemnity.

Purple

As a cool color, purple has a calming effect. Rare in nature, purple has become associated with exoticism and beauty.

Stunning landscape photo of a mountainous coastal landscape at sunset - using color theory in landscape photos
Purple is rare and eye catching in nature. Photo by Mark Harpur on Unsplash

Green

One of the most abundant colors in landscape photography, green manifests in organic life. Its cool tones create peace and tranquillity.

Red

Red is associated with passion, anger, and love. Appearing in sunsets, flowers and autumn leaves, red directs attention. Use it to guide the viewer’s eye.

An autumnal scene dominated by red tones using color theory in landscape photography
An autumnal scene dominated by red tones. Photo by Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash

Orange

Orange is often encountered in the sunsets of landscape photography. As a warm color, orange inspires happiness and passion.

Browns

Browns in landscape photography illustrate the earth. Brown is a visual anchor. It shows a viewer the condition of an environment.

Yellow

Found in flowers, agricultural landscapes, deserts, and autumn leaves, yellow inspires happiness, energy, and awe.

A stunning yellowed and brown mountainous landscape - color theory for landscape photography
A yellowed landscape. Photo by Jade Stephens on Unsplash

Conclusion

Landscape photographers work within a very diverse genre of photography. There is no single factor to dictate the positive outcome of a landscape image. But colour theory is a tool that can significantly boost the impact of a photograph.

Color theory explores the whys and hows behind the colors in a photograph. Become familiar with the fundamentals of color theory. You will then be able to recognise and capture photographs with greater efficiency and success.

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